St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8: 1-12
Colossians 1: 15-28
Luke 10: 38-42
“The time is surely coming, say the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing he words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)
Some of the places I have been privileged to visit are not readily found on a map. Indeed, there are places even I have a difficult time pointing to, such is their remoteness and isolation from the mainstream. They have all been poor places, with no four-star hotels in sight. Among the mountain homesteads of Chinese migrants, with little or no running water, and only corn which is grown for survival to eat, I stayed in a little village nearby. It had one main dusty street with various little home-front stores. My room was Spartan and none too clean by Western standards. People were brushing the halls of the hotel, brushing the streets and brushing their store-fronts. The garbage collector passed by my window. Raw garbage was piled up on a simple wooden cart which was pulled by a yak. What I remember most about that place was its energy. People working hard, buying and selling, cleaning and weeding, sweeping and sowing more corn. And in the corner at the end of my hall, and in the little storefronts and in the tiny one-room houses nestled in remote mountains, were shrines to Buddha, each with its own small statue, some faded plastic flowers and fruit. One can imagine a similar situation here in the United States, or anywhere in the Western world. Be it a Motel 6 or a Four Seasons, on every floor, maybe in every room, there would be a multi-faith shrine, or a shrine to God. One would see the same in every store or in every home. Some kind of shrine that, by its presence, serves as a reminder that, what we do with our time, how we live our lives, who we are, where we live, there is some far greater force that exists to give us strength, to give us focus and to give us pause. When we forget to be aware of God’s continual presence, we start wandering around without direction or purpose and begin turning on ourselves.
On the borders of Kenya and Uganda, there are no shrines of Buddha to be see, but there are beautiful umbrella trees, Baobab trees. The trees give much needed and appreciated shade from the stingingly hot, bright sun, and in the doing so, they invite one to respite from work. A place for time out. For refueling, for re-connecting, and for singing and praying. When I was there, I worked hard as did all the others, each with our various tasks. Then with no specific scheduled time, people would drift over to the trees to take a break from working and inevitably someone would start singing. The songs would be praise songs, or hymns, intertwined with spoken offerings of praise to God, prayers and supplications, for strength for the journey of faith, for the journey of living. The trees had become church. The trees serve as a living reminder of what it is we are about….beyond our work for daily living and survival. They serve to remind us of our purpose and to remind us of the source of our strength.
In Peru, shrines to Mary and her crucified Jesus are ubiquitous. One cannot look anywhere without seeing flower-bestowed statutes, pictures and altars meant to lift up Love in its most pure form.
The ever present shrines, be they Buddhist, Maryan or simple trees built for shade, keep alive awareness of faithful trust in the hearts of those who toil from sun up to sundown in these places and many more like them around the world. They remind one to smile and think of what is good for the soul. They are there to ease troubled and fearful hearts. And even though one might be hungry or thirsty, one can find sustenance in their unfailing presence and keep on keeping on.
The people in those places are not much different than us. They live with a degree of uncertainty, a degree of fear for their safety. If the rains come too soon, they may not be able to plant enough corn to live on, so they must work hard to be sure they are not too late. Those who live on the borders of Kenya and Uganda are as vulnerable as people in the rest of the world, as terrorist groups like Al Shabaab make their mark more and more visible. The people of Peru are still recovering from brutal war and their poor are among the poorest of the world.
And yet they smile. I have been greeted by smiles and laughter, joy and singing in all these places and more. One might wonder what they have to smile about…what makes them laugh and I came to understand their great lesson about trust. It is their trust in Buddha, trust in God, trust in the Great Father or Mother Earth or Jesus that invites their time for connection and conversation with that beyond the harsh expectances of their world.
It is no different for us, except that we tend not to place these reminders around ourselves. We consider the church our shrine and we come to it once or maybe twice a week to pray. We may have a cross on a wall in our house or a prayer book on a table. We pass by them as we go about our day to day business. Now and then we dust them off, like the lamps or the vases or the other books. Sometimes, we are far too distracted by the world, far too concerned about our own issues to notice them or focus on them anymore and they simply fade away from our awareness. Our shrines are not allowed in mainstream stores or public places anymore and outside the places of our worship, the world pulls us into the midst of its spiritual famine.
We are filled with our own concerns, distracted by what we deem to be necessary and we can’t imagine why everyone else isn’t as caught up in our particular concerns as we are. We want someone to go with us into our issues …our frantic comings and goings in mind, body and spirit. We don’t like it if, when we voice our problems, no-one seems to hear or care. And we build our resentments up with scaffolding made of our own self-absorption forgetting completely about the cross on the wall or the prayer book on the table and their power to hear us and to speak through the noise in our heads.
The deep Christology of the epistle to the Colossians we heard today pulls us up short as we ignore these reminders. It starts with the announcement of Jesus as the image, the eikon of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Jesus… the man…. is one with the beginning…..the Word….the one who is before all things…the only one….the one in whom all things hold together. How is it that anyone, who calls him or herself a Christian disciple, able to think about ignoring any reminder of that….whether for six days of the week, or maybe even seven.
Our organized religion….our Church…. in whatever form it takes….is a good reminder but for many of us….but if we view it as a place to come to….a shrine-like building to visit just one day a week, we are missing a vital awareness of its power to move with us for the rest of the time. It can be the shrine that is everywhere, the Baobab tree that needs no specific time or date in order to ignite our hearts. It is here to proclaim Christ and as its body, and to remind us that we are called to do that. Not just on Sundays but at every moment of our waking and sleeping. Our faith in God and God’s Church is not meant to be malleable in our hands, its message shaped and formed according to our particular preferences, or our opinions. Professor David Ng, in his book “Youth in the Community of Disciples,” emphasized that church is not entertainment, where young people or anyone else come to be passively catered to by church leaders who are supposed to put on some sort of consumer related activity or trendy gimmick. As Ng put it, the church is not a theological theme park.
Neither is it a place to wait in maintenance mode until something happens…like Christ showing up at the door. It is not just about fellowship, although that’s a nice result of being one together. Fellowship is not the central purpose of the Church. It is not the local social club, it is a place where we worship God as the body of Christ and fuel up our faith in order to go out and proclaim why we were here in the first place. It does not exist to be our refuge…our shelter from the storm…although, that too, is a dimension of what we find there. It does not hold terrorists from bay, or offer protections from guns in the street, from crazy rhetoric, the self-important ambitious who claim to tell us what we need.
While all these are realized in the church, its real purpose is to be a community of disciples of Jesus Christ who come to heighten their awareness of the same and who come to renew their direction as to how to act out and proclaim that awareness in the world.
Sound simple? Absolutely not. That is why the church must serve as an exclamation point for our faithful worship of God that is part of our awareness all week long as we face the cross on the wall every day and open up the prayer book or the Bible.
And it is in times like ours today, that this awareness is just as critical as it has been since time began. We live in a world that is pluralistic, secular and atheistic. It is a world that worships all manner of idols…..fame, money, power, turf and trends. It wants us to hide our Christology behind a façade of keeping up with the Joneses on all of these. We don’t publish our shrines or make our crosses too noticeable. We allow the world to tame us, put us back into our little boxes of faith so that we don’t make waves in a world that would rather forget us and our radical, counter-cultural way of thinking.
So we whitewash our Christianity in order for it to become more politically correct…flying it under the radar so that we fit in….so that we conform and meet the expectations of the world.
We’re like Martha, heard about in our Gospel reading today….who for all her love for Jesus, could not put him above what she knew to be society’s expected behavior as hostess to a visitor. Jesus has come to visit his friends, Martha and her sister, Mary. Martha works to ensure all customary hospitality is completed in so that their guest will be made to feel comfortable. One might venture to guess that it is a scene with which we are all familiar in our own homes.
Martha resents having to do all the work while her sister simply takes a seat at the feet of Jesus, engrossed in listening to him, rapt in his words. Martha takes it further, though, than any good mannered hostess would in that day or ours, I expect. Rather than discretely tapping her sister on the shoulder to have a quick word with her in the kitchen, she confronts her guest, none other than Jesus, and tries to triangulate by having him tell Mary that Mary is supposed to be up helping with the chores. And we think “Wow! That takes guts!” But our reaction is surprising, really, because we do that all the time. We work through our discipleship in varying ways….working in the kitchen, counting the money, taking care of the building, visiting the sick and frail, working to assist the needy. There is a place for all these, but Luke’s story points out their position of importance relative to worshiping, studying, learning, teaching, acting and proclaiming God.
Jesus calls his friend Martha on her busyness and her distraction, her conformance to the status quo, the way she expects things should be done. She has become so distracted by her work that she has lost focus on that fact that it is Jesus who is sitting in her house. Hospitality is important, but it is less about having things be perfect and more about having focus on the words of her important guest.
Theologian John Shea notes that “while in English we hear that Mary has chosen “the better part,” in Greek the word is translated as “good.” Mary has chosen the “good” part. She has chosen the way that connects her to God, the way that gives her uninterrupted focus and growth in her faithful discipleship. Martha has chosen another way. It is a way we often choose, a way that is filled with what we know and therefore filled with expectations about what should happen. And, knowing what we know, we often step in the way of something else happening that could be far more rewarding and self-sustaining.
When we are constantly needing to be in a place of knowing then we are unable to move into anything new. We become, in a way, stuck….unable to experience what might emerge from the unknown. And even though we might find ourselves caught inside our own expectations of what has been, what should be and should always be, the world keeps moving anyway. With us or without us. This moving of life, regardless of the way we want things to remain as we know them, is exactly why Jesus does not agree with Martha’s request that he have Mary get up and do exactly what Martha is doing……ignoring what could be…. for the sake of what she thinks or expects things should be.
As followers of Christ we are called to listen to Jesus, not be so wrapped up in our own thing that we miss his message completely. It’s not about not doing the work. Not about neglecting our duties to maintain the church, help out in the kitchen, fix the garden, or reach out to the poor and infirm. But it is not about forgetting the other side of the equation that brings Christian discipleship into balance either….and that is a constant awareness of the presence of God and the continuing call and desire to worship God. We are called to respond to that prayer and worship by reaching out into our community with great joy through our work and actions and our dedication to justice, mercy and peace.
Jesus is the head of the church and we are the body of that church. No president or king rules our hearts, no political posturing, no terrorist will hold a grip on us. For we have one Lord to whom we turn for guidance and for wisdom. We are here to serve Christ, and by this service, we find humility and selflessness. We are to worship God continually…. with a kind of fearless silence. A fearless shutting out of a messy world just long enough to discern God’s word. If we turn away from the one we call Lord, then we will lose sight of the wisdom we seek. In the words of Joni Mitchell “Don’t it always go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
May we become distracted by God’s wisdom and beauty to such an extent that we are excited by the promise held there and are compelled to do nothing less than put down our work at least once a day to simply and humbly listen to His words. Look at the cross on your wall and if you don’t have one, put one there. Open the pages of your Bible or prayer book and if you don’t have one, put one there to be ready for you to touch each day.
Let us build our shrines to God, gather under our own Baobab trees, our own places to stop and listen, with fearless silence to the word of God.
If we don’t, then we may lose sight of Him completely, be left to our own devices…..left to the choices of the world….and look where that gets us.
Written to the Glory of God
July 17, 2016
 David Ng, Youth in the Community of Disciples (Valley Forge, PA; Judson Press, 1984).
 John Shea, Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Preachers and Teachers; The Relentless Widow, Year C (Collegeville, MN. Liturgical Press 2006), 203.